Our Journey from Dyslexia to Literacy: A Conversation with 'Reversed' Author Lois Letchford
Release Date: October 14, 2020
Lois Letchford was told by a teacher that her son, Nicholas, was “the worst child (she’s) ever seen in (her) 25 years of teaching.” Instead of giving up and giving in, Letchford became a passionate advocate for literacy and children who have been left behind by the educational system. Join us for an inspiring conversation as she shares how she helped her son beat the odds and overcome dyslexia, and how she discovered her own dyslexia.
Podcast topics will include:
- The methods Letchford used at home to help her son learn to read
- How and why a special school made the difference in her son’s path to literacy
- How to help students believe in themselves even when the odds seem to be against them
- Advice for parents and educators working with students with reading difficulties
We hope you will join us for this special podcast!
Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360.
Lois Letchford: I have many questions as to why the school or someone didn't say to me, "What is happening in this classroom with this child is totally unacceptable." And, they didn't say that because they said, "This child is just dumb," and that's a problem I still struggle with today. When you see a child struggling, put them in a cap and gown and say, "One day, this is what you're going to do."
Narrator: You just heard Lois Letchford, a literacy spokesperson for struggling readers who have fallen behind in the traditional classroom and the author of Reversed: A Memoir. Lois Letchford is our guest today on EDVIEW360. Here's your host, Pam Austin.
Pam Austin: This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We are so excited to have you back with us. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning® in Dallas, TX. October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and today, we are honored to have with us Lois Letchford, advocate for children and literacy, member of the International Dyslexia Association®, and author of Reversed: A Memoir. Hello, Lois. Welcome. We are so happy to have you with us today.
LL: Thank you, Pam. I am delighted to be here.
PA: Awesome. We normally ask how our guests became involved in education, but we know that is all a part of your story, so we're going to get right into it. Tell us a little bit about your son, Nicholas, and how you first became aware that he had learning challenges.
LL: That's an interesting question because they came really full force when he went to grade one and he was terrified of going to school in grade one and ended up wetting his pants every day, he bit his fingernails, and then the teacher told me, "Well, he just stares into space all day. I don't know how I'm going to teach him." That's how I knew my son struggled. But even saying that, I wasn't aware of the absolute depth of social isolation and isolation throughout that whole year in school.
PA: Yes, that must have been a daunting realization as a parent.
PA: Yeah. What were some clues? I mean, beyond what you've shared?
LL: Well, he couldn't learn anything. There was no memory for anything. When he went to kindergarten and preschool, he seemed to be doing OK, he was relatively happy, but what I noticed was that we were in a fairly affluent area close to the university and it was a multicultural place. Nicholas played with all the non-English speaking children, which is great that he's engaging with all of these people. It's not good for his language development, but it's the way he also slid under the radar in those early years. He certainly had speech delays and we went to speech therapy in preschool, I think, but it was really grade one when the disaster happened and it was really horrific.
PA: Right. Sounds like a safe interaction that he used.
LL: Yeah, and children don't have the words to say, "Mum, I'm hurting. Mum, I can't do anything." They have their own coping mechanisms and that plays into the problem that you, as an outsider to the school system, don't know what's going on in the classroom unless someone explicitly says, "Hey, you know, there's a problem. This cannot go on."
PA: Right, right. That makes absolute sense. Well, we know your son, Nicholas, inspired you to write your book, Reversed: A Memoir. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the learning issues Nicholas faced? You gave us a little bit of information just now. How did you choose the title, Reversed, as well?
LL: Ah, that's a good one. Because his life was reversed. Statistics will tell you, when children fail first grade, the chances of getting out and becoming a normal member of the reading community is very small, and at the end of first grade, Nicholas was tested. The testing showed that he could read 10 words, that he had no strengths, and he had a low IQ. For a normal child, if you were given that at the end of grade one, they would do nothing for the rest of their lives because that test and those results really dictate what happens from there on, and that's significant.
PA: Right, because you're not tapping into his possible potential, correct?LL: Yeah, and you're not seeing anything other than a child with a low IQ, and then his behavior at the total withdrawal, the inability to even engage in the classroom was significant. Today, I'm looking back on it, because this happened in 1994 and I have many questions as to why the school or someone didn't say to me, "What is happening in this classroom with this child is totally unacceptable." And, they didn't say that because they said, "This child is just dumb," and that's a problem I still struggle with today.
PA: Right, so this is an example of one of the many encounters you have with people who did not believe in your son, did not believe Nicholas could learn to read, to definitely succeed in school. School is a career for students, right? Well, how did you feel when Nicholas' teacher told you she wasn't up to the task of teaching Nicholas?
LL: Unfortunately I feel like the teachers, the first thing you do is blame the child. Well, I'm not surprised. I know how difficult he is. I know how hard he is to deal with at home. What's he like in the classroom? So, in a way, I'm doing exactly the same things as a teacher: It's Nicholas' fault. My saving grace was my husband, who's an engineer, but he's an academic, and he reads science. And, he said, "Nicholas can look like that, any time. Nicholas is smart, Nicholas has got a brain," and he kept believing in Nicholas and that really helped me to see Nicholas as a child that had possibilities. But the big change came when we had the opportunity to remove Nicholas from school in 1995, and this was unbelievable, really, that my husband, a professor and he had study leave in Oxford and I took Nicholas out of school for six months and I was able to try things.
Of course, I started with phonics. It was a failure. He couldn't remember it. He had no memory for words, letter sounds, for anything. And, my mother-in-law was with me and she said, "Lois, make learning fun." That sounds like not a very scientific thing to say, but in fact, it changes the brain. You're not dealing with the fight and flight. We're dealing with, "I can do this," so I started to write really, really, really simple poems, and I didn't expect Nicholas to read them. I read them to him. He joined in, we did illustrations, and then we started to pull apart these words. Poetry doesn't deal with simple language. You deal with some simple words, but your vocabulary is much wider than we normally speak, so we're branching into book language, so it became an all-encompassing way of teaching.
The way it happened, you're doing the poetry first. Before I dealt with the decoding was a phenomenal change. That was fantastic because through the poetry I started simply, but then the ideas expanded and we went with Captain Cook because the words "cook," "look," and "book," rhyme and I wrote this poem about Captain Cook, the last of the great explorers taking a look and writing a book for all the world to look at and so on, and Nicholas said to me, "Who came before Captain Cook?" I said, "Oh, that's easy. That was Christopher Columbus." He said, "And, who came before Columbus?" My mouth dropped open and he had to ask me, he told me twice, he asked me twice because I hadn't thought about these things. That's when I realized my son does not have a low IQ.
PA: Yes, definitely doesn't sound like a child who has a low IQ asking those types of logical questions.
LL: And, seeing him as not a child with a low IQ transformed my view of him and of learning and that was really, really, really impactful.
PA: Right, definitely.
LL: For me, for thinking, for teaching, for learning. And, the changes that I'd made were just critical in his success.
PA: Well, Lois, your experiences with Nicholas', both his challenges and his successes were amazing and they were logical. When I stop and think about what was missing from that instruction with phonics, it was that oral language. Oral language is so important for kids, especially for kids who struggled like Nicholas. That phonemic awareness and that playing with language is a precursor to phonics. Just think about those rhymes that you made for him, that play with words, that's a form of phonological awareness, and then that little activity where you had him go to his grandmother and say, "Shh," that's a form of phonemic awareness right there. He was practicing replication, but just having fun with it. Amazing.
And, also, the word "changes" you just said, Lois. I think about the change in attitude for yourself, for Nicholas, the belief your husband had in Nicholas, those were all catalysts for you to continue to find other ways to help and support him. And, I really want to hone in on the fact that you use oral language, we see that oral language is set precursor for students who struggle with dyslexia or characteristics of dyslexia, and the challenges that they have. Very, very, very inspiring.
My next question, I believe you started to answer it, but I want to see if you have any more that you would like to add to the idea of what are some ways that you kept Nicholas going? When you started to see the change, when you started to see the growth, how did you get Nicholas to stay strong and continue to move forward with wanting to learn and wanting to explore more?
LL: Wanting to learn, I actually tapped into his curiosity during that time, and Nicholas learned that he could love learning and learning to him became exciting. Now, I can answer this question in hindsight, because this event happened in 1994 and 1995. Nicholas is now 32 and when I talk to him about his early learning, my son cries, but he says to me, "But I remember the learning we did in Oxford." You've got this boy where the face is litten up, his eyes are bright, and he said, "I remember the poems you wrote. I remember Cook." And, he said, "I remember you writing a poem about a witch's spell." Then, he starts laughing and he said because I wrote the ingredients, I don't remember what they were, but he's laughing and saying, "It was so funny." Really, the turning around and the making learning fun changes the brain. And, I think we ignore how important it is that children are part of the learning experience. It's far more than just teaching about letters and sounds. How are we making children feel when they sit in front of us and are enjoying the learning?
PA: Yes. Make learning fun. What a novel idea, right? In your book, it sounded like things seemed to start to turn around when you moved to Texas. That chapter is even called Schools Make All the Difference. Share with us why Nicholas's school in Lubbock was so special and what those educators did that made the difference in Nicholas' life.
LL: Well, this is an interesting part because we left Australia when Nicholas was age 11 and he was in the fifth grade. He's now reading on a third-grade reading level, two years behind, and everyone is absolutely delighted with what Nicholas has achieved because he has exceeded expectations and he's reading 20 minutes a night, he's doing what everyone else says that we would expect of him to do, and then we moved to Texas.
The first thing the principal says to us is "I think Nicholas should repeat and go into fourth grade," which means Nicholas would be repeating for a second time, which is against all of the theory. My husband said, "Well, won't he be old when he graduates from high school?" and she says, "Oh, yes, that's a problem. But, you know, we've got this class in middle school, grade seven, eight, and nine, where he can do three years in two. If we repeat him now, he'll be going into fourth. He will be able to take more away from the classroom, he will be able to take in more information and more content, and then we can catch him up in middle school, and by the time he gets to high school, he'll be with everyone else.” And, that's exactly what happened.
Now, why was this so important? Because Nicholas then was a regular student in the class and what we didn't know about Nicholas in Australia was how disciplined he was. They had the Accelerated Reader program. I'm not promoting it or demonizing it or anything, but I'm saying they had that program, and Nicholas came home to me and he said, "Mum, I've got to read a book and take a test." Nicholas read for two hours a night, five, six, and sometimes seven nights a week to read one Goosebumps book. What we are seeing now is an extraordinary child who is so disciplined about a task that he has been given. No one expected that. And, this goes back to our expectations of children when we're expecting them to do, when we have the school set up to say, "This is what the goals are. Our children are going to improve reading." Nicholas took it by his hand and ran with it.
In my book, identify nine factors that made a difference to Nicholas in Lubbock and I just commented on the two: The repetition of the class, which worked for him, and the reading was enormous. And, then in Lubbock, TX, if you know Lubbock, it's miles from anywhere. You drive for hours. The libraries were full of books on CD and that became our outlet as we drove, the boys would listen. There was absolute silence in the car when we had a book everyone loved. When we had a book they hated, they would fight. Quick. Change it, let's have another one. If you've got children with language issues, the first thing they should be doing is listening to books on CD.
PA: That's that layer of oral language that's coming up again. We lead with oral language to help students hear the language, understand the syntax, understand the use of words, right? That's a great way to front load.
LL: And, you get the knowledge of story structure is what they say in the literature as well, which if you're reading baby books, you don't get that depth. So, you're giving them language that's at their grade level and above. How many times do you listen to it? It doesn't matter because every time you reread it, you gain more understanding and knowledge and comprehension of the story, of vocabulary, of everything. Pam, I absolutely love you.
PA: Well, I have to tell you, Lois, you are definitely confirming all that I already know that our students need and the things that you have done to help support Nicholas and your other boys as well that made an impact because my next question was: You know, what are some of the methods that you use at home? You've laid out quite a few of them. Would you like to add to that list?
LL: One of the things that I'd like to really push now as I get older is the importance of culturally appropriate literature. I did it in England with Nicholas, with Captain Cook because we were Australian and we were in England and Cook left England to map Australia. When you're dealing with children of culture, we cannot just give them any words, we need to take words with which they can connect. We think reading is about letters and sounds. Letters and sounds are the medium. Why do we want to use those letters and sounds? Because I want to learn something and you are central to everything and when we teach children that they are important, their culture's important, their words are important, we engage them, they learn more easily.
PA: Very good. So, we're talking about meaningful connections and building a background and knowledge. That just makes perfect sense. It adds that extra layer as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about your own reading struggles? You discovered you had dyslexia at age 39.
LL: As I was teaching Nicholas and I'm looking at a book that says "Dyslexia," it's not the first time I'd heard the name, but it was the first time I was able to say, "Ah, Lois, this is why you struggled." I remember going to school in the '60s and I was a good kid, a diligent child. I could read words. We grew up with the Dick and Jane series and I had no clue who those characters were. I had no clue where they came from. Their clothes were foreign. Their hair was from outer space. The flower suit? Well, I don't know where that came from. As I taught Nicholas, I could then reflect on "This is why you had problems in school." In my book, I talk about doing the SRA reading and I read every word and couldn't get one question right and the part that still I struggle with is that not one person ever helped me and they don't help you because they've got a preconceived notion, that girl's not very smart.
PA: I'll tell you, with that idea, that leads us to our next question. A perfect segue, actually. We are nearing the end of our podcast, but we can't leave without me asking you this one. What advice do you have for educators teaching students with learning disabilities, especially students with reading disabilities?
LL: I have written "mindset." When you see a child struggling, instead of saying that child has a learning disability, say that child's going to be a future rocket scientist. When we start to see children through a different lens, we change the outcomes for that child. We also change the teaching and make it more appropriate.
PA: Wow. Again, we're going back to attitude. Attitude changes the altitude, right? How we perceive a child and what the expectations are.
LL: I call it "mindset" because as we see a child who struggles and all we see is a struggling child, we don't change enough for the child, so how we see them, and you're right, it's attitude changes to altitude. Is that what you said?
PA: Yes, definitely. You've got it, Lois. Thank you for sharing.
PA: What advice do you have for parents who may be going through what you have been through?
LL: The first thing is mindset because I'm doing YouTube videos and I did one this week about Nicholas when he was in first grade, that I did not believe that he was capable of what he did, I couldn't see that. When you see a child struggling, put them in a cap and gown and say, "One day, this is what you're going to do," so mindset is critical. Do the research. Today, everything is available. Do the research and find out what you can do, and thirdly, advocate for that child, believing in them.
I have a quote in the back of my mind from Professor Curt Dudley-Marling and it's on my email and it's "Learning and learning problems dwell in activities and cultural practices and not in the heads of individuals." Take that quote to your IEP meeting and say, "How are we going to change the teaching until my child reads?"
PA: Right. Very powerful. I read that scene in your book, Lois, when you did just that, and I got chills just listening. In my mind, I am seeing you and your reaction, it didn't happen right away, but you did come back. No, I really appreciate that scene, so I'm advocating for parents, for teachers out there. If you have not, you have to read the book. You have to go out and definitely see this experience, Reversed: A Memoir. So, we're not done yet, Lois.
LL: Oh, please. I've got so much to say.
PA: Well, we moved back into your book. There is a happy ending. Can you tell us what Nicholas is doing now?
LL: Nicholas, after he completed his Ph.D., actually went on and did a master's degree in health economics, and now he is working as a consultant in Oxford Policy Management in mathematical modeling of health problems, and he actually did some mathematical modeling of COVID-19.
PA: Wow. Wow. What an amazing life. Boy, you said rocket scientist. This is pretty close right there, right?
LL: Well, it's way beyond me.
PA: Most definitely. Oh, I'm sure you're very proud of Nicholas. Again, chills. That's what I'm feeling right now. Now, finally, if you could wave a magic wand and change anything in the world of education, what would you change and why?
LL: People's mindset, because it's the first thing you see that helps children learn or not learn. If we go into a classroom and we sort our children, "This one can, this one can't, this one can, this one can't," we have eliminated those children from that very moment on. It's like you say, it's attitude. So, we've got to change the attitude before we change anything. The second thing I would do, believe it or not, is trust teachers with the children they have. We are giving teachers far too much and saying, "You have to do dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot." Let's trust our teachers to do the work that they have been trained to.
PA: Right. Thank you very much for sharing that. Well, I have to tell you, Lois, we really thank you for joining us today. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Please, tell our listeners how they can learn more about you, you mentioned a YouTube channel, and how they can follow you on social media and where they can purchase your book, Reversed: A Memoir.
LL: OK, my book is available on Amazon. If you ask in a bookstore, they would be able to get it for you as well. They might have to order it. I'm available on Twitter at @letchfordlois. I'm available on Facebook and I have my own web page, which has the resources that I use with many of my students. If you have a child struggling, please go and check them out at www.loisletchford.com. I have lots of poems and I had my own YouTube channel, so I've been putting up videos, talking about me, my dyslexic journey, Nicholas' learning, and I've started a series called When Learning is Trauma. This came about because I talked to Nicholas when he was 30 and he cried about what happened to him in grade one and I thought, "This poor little boy." When children go to school and their brains are not functioning, they actually just shut down, so what do we have to do in the classroom to help our kids? So, that's all available through my social media channels.
PA: Thank you, once again, Lois. This is Pam Austin bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.
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